To understand the sense of time used throughout the ancient and medieval world, you have to forget about our contemporary clocks and their hours, minutes, seconds, mechanical ticktocks, and alarms. Imagine your waking day, sunrise to sunset, along with your sense of passing time, guided solely by the sun and the shadows it casts throughout the day.
In the days of shadow clocks, the unit of time was a moment (momentum), or the discernible movement of the gnomon’s shadow on a sundial face. A moment was approximately 90 seconds with 40 moments in a solar hour. The hour was further divided into four puncta (quarter-hours) and ten minuta. Of course, a solar hour depended on the length of the day, which, in turn, depended on the season.
From the earliest sundials around 1500 BCE through the middle ages, sundials became increasingly sophisticated and served a number of important functions for ancient and more recent civilizations. With Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, and Muslim innovations, early civilizations were able to keep exact records of past events and plan for future ones. Not only could they track the seasons, solstices, and equinoxes, they could formalize governmental, religious, and societal activities with a unified schedule. Even with the 14th-century introduction of clocks and their base 60, or sexagesimal system (hours, minutes, and seconds), sundials were still relied on and more reliable for resetting the newfangled mechanical clocks when necessary.
Traditionally, sundials were engraved with proverbs and mottos that invited passersby to reflect on the passing of time, the shortness of life, or random humorous anecdotes.
Let others tell of storms and showers, I tell of sunny morning hours.
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